Clemson's Best Running Back In School History Can Still Get Better

Zach Lentz

The Clemson football program has had a bevy of talented running backs don the orange and white and carry the ball in their storied history. But one may stand out among the rest—current Tiger and rising senior Travis Etienne.

Etienne enters 2020 as the ACC’s all-time career leader in rushing touchdowns (56), total touchdowns (62) and points by a non-kicker (372). He earned ACC Player of the Year honors for the second straight season in 2019, becoming the first running back to collect the award in back-to-back years in more than four decades (Mike Voight in 1975-76).

In 2019, Etienne became the first 4,000-yard career rusher in Clemson history. He joined NC State’s Ted Brown, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, North Carolina’s Amos Lawrence, Maryland’s LaMont Jordan, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, Georgia Tech’s Robert Lavette, Wake Forest’s Chris Barclay and Boston College’s AJ Dillon to become only the ninth 4,000-yard rusher in ACC history.

“He's still got a lot of room before he hits his ceiling,” running backs coach and offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “First you'll start physically. He's made some progress, put on some good weight. He really hasn't started to fill out. If you look at him, he doesn't look like a typical running back from the top up. From the bottom down he does. He's going to continue to mature upper body-wise, put on some more good weight to help him be more physical, a stronger runner.”

Elliott also believes that another year in the Tigers’ program will help Etienne grasp the intricacies of their blocking along the offensive line and pass protection, and will prepare him for a career in t.

“Better understanding of the schemes,” Elliott said. “The more reps he gets with the different schemes that we run, he's going to be able to develop more patience, to be able to use his blocking a little bit better in pass protection, just continue to increase his knowledge, to be able to anticipate a little bit better so that he can beat guys to the point of attack and give himself more of advantage, as opposed to being at a disadvantage being late.

“He's very dynamic right now, a special talent. But he and I both know there's more in that tank that we got to continue to figure out what are the buttons I got to push to help him grow, make sure that I'm giving him good instruction to help him develop the way he needs to develop.”

However, the benefit of playing running back for a team like the Tigers is that Etienne will never be forced to carry the load by himself.

Because this running back group is not made up of Etienne alone. Junior Lyn-J Dixon will be expected to help the team move the ball more successfully than he did last season. Rising sophomores Chez Mellusi and Michel Dukes now have one year of experience on their resume and will be expected to battle for more playing time in 2020.

While Clemson didn’t have to say goodbye to any running backs this year, they do get to say hello to 5-star commit Demarkcus Bowman and 4-star commit Kobe Pryor. The true freshmen will have a lot on their plates as they are adjusting to college life, college football routines, the playbook, and the blocking schemes. 

But in the world of elite college football programs, they will be expected to grow up quickly.

“I'm big on the unit, so obviously Travis gets a lot of the recognition right now because of the statistical numbers he's put up this year,” Elliott said. “At the end of the day we're a unit. We do everything together. It doesn't matter who is out there. There's a certain standard of performance that we have.

“We understand that, we believe we're the heartbeat of the team. If we don't go, the team doesn't go. Again, our roles are going to vary each game depending on the defensive game plan. We have to be the heartbeat of the team. For a hundred snaps we'll protect the quarterback so we can be successful. If we have to run the ball for a hundred snaps, we'll run the ball.”